You can’t run a theater on a shoestring anymore

By Ande Jacobson

After hearing about the Tabard era coming to an end, I thought back on some of the community theaters that used to thrive in years past. One such community group was The Shoestring Theatre Company, later renamed Shoestring Family Theatre. Shoestring was a little different than most theaters. It hearkened back to what community theater was in a bygone era. The Andrews family was the driving force behind Shoestring, and they got the whole community involved.

Shoestring spent most of its tenure affiliated with the Presbyterian Church of Los Gatos (PCLG) serving not only their congregation, but the local community in the area. Unlike so many groups, Shoestring took all comers. Everyone came to audition, and the Andrews family (who served as producers, directors, and choreographers in addition to being in the shows) would then cast the productions based on those auditions. They used to double cast their shows for a good part of their history giving as many people a chance to shine as possible. Their productions were all family friendly and infinitely expandable to allow for large ensembles and audiences of all ages. Their shows included Seussical, Cinderella, Annie, The Wizard of Oz, and whole host of others that were equally applicable. They ended up with performers with a wide range of talents and experience, and every year, they made it all work. The other truly unique aspect of their shows was that their casts were intergenerational with children and adults working together on every show.

Everyone could participate, and for most of their tenure, there was no cost barrier to attend or perform in Shoestring shows. In fact, for most of their existence, Shoestring didn’t even have tickets. People could just show up for performances, and there was also no participation fee for the performers. There was an expectation that the performers (or their families) would provide some sweat equity in their productions by pitching in with things like set building, painting, child wrangling, providing goodies for the green room and/or the snack tables during intermission at performances, etc., but the group thrived on donations and grants from a very appreciative community.

While Shoestring was at PCLG, they performed on a small stage in the social hall. They also used live orchestras, including musicians from the church’s congregation and others from around the community. I had a connection to Shoestring early on, not through the church, but as a music director for a few summers, and for that, I owe them a debt of gratitude. As I wrote in Part 5 of my Magical Musical Journey my first time as the director for a pit orchestra was a production of Seussical that came about because of a fluke of timing. A musical director for whom I’d played numerous times got himself in a bit of a scheduling pickle and ended up handing me the baton and his orchestra in which I was supposed to play. My first action was replacing myself in that orchestra, and then learning everything I needed to know about directing as quickly as possible. I talked a bit about the uniqueness of the theater group in that earlier essay, but what I left out was that the group was The Shoestring Theatre Company of PCLG.

After Seussical, I continued serving as their orchestral music director for three subsequent shows including Cinderella, Children of Eden, and Once Upon a Mattress, all of which turned out well and played to very appreciative full houses. That church social hall wasn’t a luxurious theater setting. It was more a multipurpose room, but in the midst of the shows with theater lighting and music in the air, audiences were swept into the stories unfolding on stage.

Shoestring eventually had to move out of their church location and spent two years affiliated with the Addison-Penzak Jewish Community Center (JCC) where a number of their performers were affiliated. Finally, they moved out into the commercial world and performed for four summers before the pandemic lockdowns at the Historic Hoover Theater in San Jose. They reopened with a production of SpongeBob in the summer of 2022, but for the last stretch without sponsorship from either PCLG or the JCC, they had to start charging a small participation fee for minors along with nominal ticket prices to help cover their facility fees and show licensing, but they still kept those costs far lower than most other local community theater groups to ensure that cost wasn’t a barrier either for their participants or for their audiences.

Unfortunately in the current pandemic, AB5 environment in California, Shoestring had to close their doors this month. They resisted raising either their ticket prices or their participation fees to equal many of the other groups that have stayed afloat because they strongly believed that the arts should be available to everyone, no matter their economic status. They had been focused on the arts through community volunteer efforts as a labor of love. Even just paying their musicians had become more costly because of AB5 forcing performing arts groups to treat them as employees rather than paying small stipends in appreciation. Many other community theater companies have increased their ticket prices significantly. Audiences have been smaller as many patrons have been slow to return to crowded venues due to the pandemic, and at the same time, material and facility costs have increased.

Shoestring will be missed, but they spent over a quarter of a century serving the local community in a way few groups do in today’s challenging economic environment. With their take all comers policy, their performing artists ranged from professional performers to those who had never seen a stage before they started rehearsals. Shoestring served to introduce a lot of people to all sides of theater who might not otherwise have had that opportunity in the past. Several of their alumni have gone on to careers in the arts all because one or more of those gentle summer shows captured their hearts and minds and gave them a taste of the magic of theater early on.

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